'Sgt.' Doyle remembers military days in Berlin | June 26, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Cover Story - June 26, 2009

'Sgt.' Doyle remembers military days in Berlin

Councilman returned to celebrate 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Mike Doyle missed World War II but was present at the start of the Cold War.

Doyle, a Danville town councilman, recalls that all the men and boys in his coal mining town in Pennsylvania were itching to go to war in the 1940s and fight the enemy. Even his father kept returning to the recruiting office and being denied since he was needed to work in the mines plus had five children.

"They finally told him, 'Don't come down here anymore,'" Doyle recalled with a smile.

His older brother was one of the first men to cross the Rhine River into Germany and to enter Dachau concentration camp. By the time Mike Doyle finished high school in 1947, the war had ended.

"After the war everybody was coming back and there were no jobs," recalled Doyle, "and I was not about to work in the coal mines."

So, at 17, he joined the U.S. Air Force. His mother signed the papers since she didn't want him working in the coal mines either.

"I joined the service and found a home," recalled Doyle. "I absolutely loved being in the service." As a good Catholic boy, he was made a chaplain's assistant; he came to be nicknamed "Preacher."

"Being a chaplain in the service is different. They're so well-respected, and they're on their own," he explained. "I could go anywhere, and do anything, and I was meeting all these people."

He made a meteoric rise to the rank of sergeant because the chaplain didn't think it was appropriate to have a lowly airman as his assistant.

Doyle was at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio when the Berlin Airlift began and the word went out for volunteers.

"I volunteered on Tuesday and was on my way Thursday," he said, recalling his excitement. But his arrival was sobering.

"The cities were devastated," he said, explaining that whole blocks in Berlin were literally flattened with only rubble remaining. "The German people had nothing."

After the war, Germany was divided, with Russia taking the eastern half and the western half being divided among the United States, Great Britain and France. Berlin was also divided among the four although the city was situated in the Russian part.

The U.S., Britain and France had a combined total of 6,500 soldiers in Berlin, and the Russians had 400,000 stationed in and around the city, as well as 2.5 million in Eastern Europe. At first, representatives from the four powers held meetings in Berlin to discuss its massive reconstruction. But the relationships took an unpleasant turn as Russia jockeyed to take total control. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was taking over the rest of Eastern Europe.

In June 1948, Stalin ordered a halt to supplies passing from the west through the eastern zone to Berlin. The power plant was in the Soviet sector and they began to ration electricity to West Berlin for a few hours in the middle of the night.

The Allies began to fly in supplies, since in 1945 it had been agreed that there would be three 20-mile-wide air corridors to provide access to the city. But it took 1,534 tons of food to keep the 2 million Germans alive, plus they needed coal and fuel.

"They wanted to not just starve them but for them to freeze," said Doyle.

The Americans began a heated debate over whether to fight the blockade or to just abandon Berlin.

"Then President Truman said, 'We're not leaving Berlin,'" recalled Doyle.

The Berlin Airlift was a hard sell for President Truman, who was also fighting to be re-elected. It was dubbed Operation Vittles by the Americans while the British called their efforts Operation Plane Fare.

The airlift began slowly. When it continued to grow, Gen. William Tunner, who'd run the Burma-China airlift during the war, was assigned to organize the flights to Berlin from Rhein-Main Air Base.

"Tunner was a master at energizing people," said Doyle. "He never wanted to see a plane sitting around." He required all the airplanes to fly by instruments to maintain the same speed, interval and altitude and so they could keep going despite the fog, which was unusually heavy that winter. He also did not allow crews to go inside the terminal while their planes were being unloaded; he outfitted trucks as snack bars and staffed them with the prettiest girls in Berlin. He used German crews to unload the planes to receive an extra ration card.

"They brought back airplanes from all over, from Hawaii, Texas, Alaska, Japan," Doyle remembered. "They were stopping World War III."

The transport aircraft were landing at two-minute intervals 24 hours a day in all kinds of weather, with 48 in the air at any one time. The allies feared the winter months, which the Russians assumed would put an end to the operations. But the deliveries continued with precision and by the end of February, 16 million pounds of supplies were airlifted to Berlin in a single day, double the minimum required.

The flights were landing at Templehof Airfield but it soon proved inadequate. Tunner hired German women to clean up the rubble, and he hired German men to enlarge the Tegel airport in the French sector. The rubble was used for the runways.

Doyle was stationed at Erding Air Force Base, 26 miles north of Munich, which was a major supply and maintenance base. He would go on temporary duty to Berlin.

"The planes were flying in 24/7 - to see it happen was unreal," Doyle said. "On April 16, 1949, Easter Sunday, a plane landed every minute of the day. The Russians decided we were there to stay."

On May 12, 1949, the Russians lifted the blockade, although Doyle noted that the Americans kept flying to build up supplies. The airlift officially ended Sept. 30, 1949, 15 months after it had begun.

Doyle and his wife, Joe Anne, returned to Berlin last month with the Berlin Airlift Association for the 60th anniversary of the Russians ending the blockade. A celebration was held in the hangar at Templehoff.

"When they opened the doors, tens of thousands of people came down the stairs and surrounded the Americans," Doyle said. "They wanted autographs and pictures. We were interviewed by every TV and radio station. They were hugging us and kissing us."

"My wife thought we would be run over," he added. "The people absolutely loved us. There were all spectrums of people, mainly 65-70, who thanked us for what we did."

The Germans also remembered the "Candy Bomber," a pilot named Gail "Hal" Halvorsen from Utah, who is a friend of Doyle's.

Halvorsen had been shocked when he saw "the shell of a city" that was Berlin. He was walking around the perimeter of Templehof after a delivery when he began to talk to some German children who were watching the airplanes from behind a fence.

He wanted to help the thin children who were so poorly dressed but all he had was two pieces of chewing gum, which he tore in half and gave to them. They looked at it in wonder, smelling it and some even treasuring pieces of the wrapper. They'd never had gum or candy, since the war had been going on their entire lives.

Halvorsen promised to drop them candy from his airplane the next day, wiggling his wings so they'd know it was him. He bought out the sweets in the base store, and tied them to handkerchiefs for parachutes. He began more and more drops, and thank you letters from the Germans began arriving, addressed to Uncle Wiggly Wings and the Chocolate Flier.

"Gen. Tunner said this is good PR - he said to drop the candy in the middle of town," said Doyle. Soon Operation Little Vittles had the backing of the people back in the United States, who donated candy and "parachutes," and eventually the pilots dropped three tons of candy over Berlin, including in the Soviet sector.

Last month the Doyles were honored visitors at a school and visited a fourth-grade class that had just studied the Berlin Airlift, with a little girl named Anna assigned as their guide.

"They all wanted to touch us," said Doyle. "They asked, 'How did you feel about bringing food in?' After all, three years before we'd been bombing the hell out of them. But we formed a bond with those people."

The Doyles also visited Erding and the site of an orphanage in the nearby village.

"In 1948 they had nothing and the Americans had plenty of everything," said Doyle. One day a nun came from the village orphanage to ask for help from the chaplain.

"He wasn't there but I put the nun in my jeep and we went to the mess hall. I took her to the chief cook and said, 'We have kids starving to death.'"

He also wrote to his mother and she collected clothes in her town and shipped them over.

"Everyone on base was giving everything," Doyle said. "For four years, we kept those orphans alive. I'm very proud of that."

When Bishop Fulton Sheen came through Munich on his way to Rome, he added the chaplain and Doyle to his entourage to accompany him to the Vatican.

"Twenty-eight of us were invited to be part of a private audience," Doyle said. "We went into a private garden and took a picture. My picture went all over the world and the people in my town saw it and the nuns in my school."

Doyle has many stories from his time in the military.

"I was spoiled while I was over there," he said. "I had a special privilege pass, my own jeep. It was a spectacular time for me. I met tons and tons of people. After six years, two months and 19 days they made me come home."

He was next assigned to California, Parks Air Force Base, and he discovered Danville, where he was to settle and become councilman and mayor.

Doyle was interviewed on television before he went to Berlin last month, and a woman from Germany who had married a G.I. and was living in Sonoma wrote to thank him. She related how she and her mother would walk great distances to pick up their rations. Her mother, who worked as a "rubble woman," was killed by a collapsing building.

"She said they owed us their lives," said Doyle. He asked to take her to dinner but she declined. "She said, 'I don't think I could stand the emotion.'"